THE WRITER AS OPPOSITIONIST
Hachette – July 2008
(French version - http://www.hachette.com/mag/019/000000007214/rencontre-avec-bob-biderman.html
The father of Alan, the book's young hero, disappears. From then on, Alan tries to understand what it's about and what he can believe in. Could we call your book a ‘coming of age’ adventure?
I suppose Red Dreams could best be described as a 'coming of age' story. At the start of the novel, Alan is about to explore his sexuality just as his perceived past is literally going up in smoke. The books and documents his father has hidden away in the attic and that Alan hopes will provide a theoretical basis to understanding his own confused existence contrasts starkly with the images of a scantily clad starlet in a well used movie magazine Alan himself has secreted amongst the mildewing volumes of esoteric politics. His journey throughout the rest of the book evolves uneasily from adolescence to young adulthood and follows the same theme of struggle between bodily passions and cherished beliefs similar to many young people but set in a special time when certain forces were at work that corrupted the natural process of desire and the intellect. How does the ‘Red Dream’ compare to the famous ‘American dream’?
The Red Dream in America was quite different from the idea of communism in Europe, especially the one that emerged after WWII. In a curious way it was a liberal version of the famous 'American Dream'. In the 1930's, the Communist Party was very active in arts and culture and many intellectuals were drawn into its ranks as a way of making a stand against the growing threat of fascism that, even in America, had become a real threat. During the war, Communists were easily absorbed into the Popular Front in order to make the world free and democratic – which, in those days, meant defeating Hitler and liberating occupied Europe. In the years immediately after the war, there was a great passion to rebuild the world anew. The American Communists wanted a fairer and more just society – not too far removed from what was to become Social Democracy in Europe. Unfortunately, as in Europe, they were tethered to the Soviet Union and a corrupted notion of Leninist centralism. But for individual Communists, like my father, the ideas of the 'Red Dream' and the 'American Dream' were not so far apart – if the American Dream was correctly quoted on the Statue of Liberty as a refuge for the huddled masses yearning to breathe fee. The twin aims of both the 'Red Dream' and the 'American Dream' were essentially peace and prosperity. The main difference though was that for the 'Red Dream' it was prosperity for all; for the 'American Dream' it was prosperity for those deserving it. But all this became terribly confused in the 1950s in the wake of McCarthyism.
Alan seems to be split between the loyalty to his father and the American Dream's appeal. In what way are these two dreams, Red and American, really antinomic?
In the early part of the book, Alan's father tells him he is going away and tries to explain, in simple terms, why it is necessary to do so. Alan pretends to understand but really doesn't – as no boy can really understand his father's disappearance. In the course of the book Alan struggles between the notion of his father as a hero, in the grand social sense of heroism, and as a traitor to him and his mother on a more personal level. In that sense, for Alan the American Dream and the Red Dream were contradictory if gaining one meant losing his father. But also, for young people like Alan, the American Dream was full of false rhetoric which was continuously being exposed as untrue – from the dishonesty of the newspapers through to the tinsel of Hollywood. I've tried to play with these contradictions in the chapter called 'The Hungarian Butcher'. Here is a man who has escaped communism in order to find freedom that essentially becomes butchering cows to provide the finest meat for the creators of Hollywood fantasies – the true merchants of the American Dream as cultural imperialism.
You chose not to live in the States at this point, but in Europe. Does this book explain your choice? To what extent is it autobiographical?
If we agree that all fiction is biography and all biography is fiction, then the book is autobiographical to the extent that my own father was a communist in America. I don't, however, think that Red Dreams explains my choice to live in Europe though, perhaps that comes out more in my second Alan Bronstein novel, Letters to Nanette, which is about the Vietnam War. In reality, I was always more European than American (which is true of many Americans, in fact). My father was born in Paris, though he came to New York as a young child. My mother was the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants. So my American ancestry goes back not so many years whereas my European ancestry goes back for many generations. But why did I personally choose to live in Europe rather than America? It wasn't a conscious decision. My children grew up in Europe and now they have children who are as removed from America as I was from Europe when I was a child. Perhaps the New Europe, the one that I am now part of – as are my wife and children as well as a multitude of other immigrants who settled here from many different places and for many diverse reasons – can be a model for a more tolerant world, as America once was.
What about America today, on the eve of the elections? Can we still talk about ‘witch hunt ‘? Can we still talk about the ‘American Dream’?
On the eve of the elections, America is once again at a critical turning point, as it has been occasionally during its short history. In the 1960s and 70s, young Americans questioned the implications of the American Dream as construed by their fathers and mothers and played around with their own idea of a Red one. Then, in subsequent decades, the American Dream became further obfuscated by an unbridled quest for wealth and power. Now, once again, young Americans (and older ones, too) are questioning the nature of the 'American Dream' in the wake of a disastrous military adventure which has pushed many into the role of active oppositionists. But dreams of whatever colour can be divided into reality and myth. Both the American Dream and Red Dream were partly woven of fantasy – but the Red Dream in America was relegated to the dismal past whereas the American Dream, re-interpreted by the likes of Bush, meant a near Orwellian dystopia formulated through the doctors of spin as Paradise unless you were, or looked to be, Arabic. American intellectuals (those who the mass media chose to represent them) have been cowed in a very similar way they were in the 50s when basic ideas of civil rights and liberties were crushed by the fear of reds under beds, just as now they conjure up swarthy men with frightful beards who linger in the shadow of jihad. Has the terror run its course? Perhaps, the American Dream will be remoulded again with aspects of the Red Dream that came from the quest for human rights and human dignity – a basic humanity that has so far eluded us.
Interview with Bob Biderman by Yann Perreau
Otis College of Art and Design
2008 / Issue 2
1951: the year of Catcher in the Rye. At eighteen years old, JD Salinger – after a work-placement at a saughterhouse - decides he is going to be a writer. Alan, your alter-ego in the book, similarly has a job in a butcher shop. Like Salinger, Alan can be seen as a symbol of this generation, the one of disillusioned dreams. Do you identify with Salinger’s character? And is he a source of inspiration for you?
Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was an iconic book for my generation – one of those immediate classics that became a cultural referent even for those who didn’t read novels. However, it’s important to remember how divided the response was when the book first came out – not only because of its theme regarding youthful alienation at a time when America was promoting itself as the bastion of everything good and shiny (so what reason would there be for alienation in the best of all possible worlds?); it also was a radical shift, stylistically, as it pared back prose to the essential, lingering less on florid detail and more on language connecting the reader to a kind of adolescent angst that was still bound and tethered back in 1951. But did I personally identify with Salinger’s character? Yes and no - maybe now more than before. Holden Caulfield was coming out of a culture I knew little about – one that could even conceive of sending their children to military prep school and that seemed to have few coherent dreams or comprehensible ideals. This is why, in the main, the novel was scarcely understood by first generation immigrants who couldn’t fathom why anyone would be interested in the story of a kid who didn’t seem to know what to do with himself in a country that supposedly rewarded hard work and self-reliance. But later, as the political and social hypocrisy of 50s America had truly sunk in, after the ravages of McCarthyism, Caulfield, who I had always conceived of as coming out of that mythical idea of ‘middle America’ (I was flabbergasted when I discovered Salinger had a Jewish background), began to represent the brooding nihilism that was starting to emerge as that dreadful decade expired.
Your reference to meat is an interesting one. Salinger, when he was writing Catcher in the Rye, was a practicing Zen Buddhist and subsequently a follower of a Hindu sect. His father had been a kosher cheese salesman. So certain meats in his childhood were taboo and in his later life he most likely played around with being a vegetarian. There is something about meat consumption in America – thick, rare steaks oozing with blood; triple-decker hamburgers dripping with fat – that links into a raw, carnivorous madness (and I’m not a vegetarian). In Red Dreams, I felt I came closest to portraying that strange connection between the rather weird notion of freedom and the craving for limitless consumption in the chapter about the Hungarian Butcher.
Have you been influenced by other coming of age writers?
It’s interesting to me that Salinger’s list of writers who influenced him - Kafka, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Proust, Rilke, Lorca, Keats, Rimbaud, Burns, E. Brontë, Jane Austen, Henry James, Blake, Coleridge – is pretty much the same as mine if you leave out Austen and Bronte and insert George Sand and Emma Goldman for the women. It’s interesting that his list is mainly made up of French, Russian and German writers whose novels, I suspect, he read in translation (as did I). The three American writers I feel most connected to are Steinbeck, Jack London and Mark Twain. The two best ‘coming of age’ novels in American literature for me are, London’s Martin Eden and Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Of those I would say London’s Martin Eden was the one that stayed with me (even though most people consider it to be one of his lesser books). But, far and away, the American writer who influenced me the most was Raymond Chandler - an English ex-pat whose sense of émigré gave him a unique vision of Americana and whose foreign ear gave him the ability to pick up on the beautiful nuances of linguistic diversity that makes American, from his pen at least, the most poetic of languages.
You began this book years ago. But you decided to finish it and to publish it only reccently. In a talk, you mentionned how our time, somehow, reminds you of that dark period you went through as a kid...
I suppose, when I gave that talk you refer to, I was thinking about the notion of enforced normality – what makes people ‘toe the line’. In the 50s there were very few who were willing to stand up for basic civil rights; it was a time when people could lose their job, be deprived of their careers or even sent to jail for articulating certain ideas that were counter to the established social and political hierarchies. That is certainly true again today in both Britain and America. The McCarthy period, however, was simply one example of ‘The Great Fear’ that haunts human society at various times in history. But I have hope we are reaching an end to this cycle of the pendulum. For Red Dreams, I feel it probably has a better chance now to be read simply as a coming-of-age story – which is how I meant it to be read – than some years back when the ideas that inhabit the book would have categorized it as a ‘political’ novel, which, in both America and Britain, is giving it the kiss of death. The novel of ideas has only rarely been accepted in the English-speaking world.
It seems to me that you are, in this book, trying to deconstruct some myths about America, the American dreams… Is there still an American dream, these days ?
Yes. But sometimes the American Dream and the American Nightmare coalesce. The American Dream, for me, survives in folk art and the popular literature of the 30s as well as the spirit that re-emerged during the best of the 60s. It could be summed up by the sense of eternal optimism even when there doesn’t seem anything to be optimistic about. There is an energy in America that one finds nowhere else. It comes from the enduring myth etched on the Statue of Liberty – that all waifs and wanderers are welcome and that the homeless shall find shelter on those majestic shores (after a stint on Ellis Island). This essential idea of refuge, however, sits uneasily with another fundamental notion of what the American Dream is all about – the one that goes no matter what your circumstances, you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps, that it’s all there for the taking. Except, of course, the child poverty rate for African-Americans is 25% and for Hispanics not much less.And what about the Red dream that the title mentions ?
Ah, yes. I’ve been wondering that myself. There was a Red Dream once. It got rather faded and then trampled on by those who believed that humankind was never meant to live in peace and harmony nor that collective ventures could possibly be successful without enslavement. It finds life again every so often and then submerges like the fabled Old Mole. But the Red Dream I wrote about was the post WWII fantasy that was built on the belief that socialism was inevitable and was a matter of scientific certitude. That belief was the opposite pole from those who thought that liberty and justice were implicit in the so-called ‘Free Market’. The Red Dream, at its best (and most naïve), was based on an aching desire for peace and justice; at its worst it was based on an ignorance of the absolute nature of power when centralised in human form.
Your book is full of cinema references (Westerns, Walt Disney, Bunuel). You told me that it was, originaly, a script for a film? What, do you think literature can do in our time to compete with the Hollywood machine of dream fabrication?
Some years back I had worked on a film script of Letters to Nanette, the first of my Bronstein novels. The producer of the film had wanted some background on the character and I created a series of little vignettes about his earlier existence. When, as often happens, the film was shelved, I decided to use the material as the basis for the prequil to my earlier novel. Having developed the scenes cinematically, I suppose it was natural that film references came into play. Actually, if I were to answer your initial question regarding the inspiration for my coming of age novel more acurately, I would have mentioned a film rather than a book – Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups. Many writers have found their inspiration in other forms of art – music, dance, painting. Why not cinema? Of course the difference comes when a certain cultural form is overtaken by commercial interests. And the American movie industry presents a special problem of the dream machine becoming a vehicle for cultural imperialism. But the art of cinema, true cinema, has long used literary devices – just as any literature that attempts to connect with contemporary culture often uses cinematic references. I do think, however, that as a genre the novel has suffered from the fascination with commercial cinema. Novelists, therefore, are obliged to experiment with devices that furthers their specific art form. Literature can and should do things that cinema cannot. This is why any new literature is by nature experimental and thus difficult to market – as any original creative venture will be. But the function that honest literature serves, that of connecting language, ideas and linking them to the creative imagination, is something that sets it apart from other cultural endeavors. Today, in the English speaking world at least, few books are successful that aren’t written with the film industry in mind. That is a serious problem for writers because the commercial impetus is not to experiment with the form, with language – rather it confines the writer to a celluloid grammar. The novel must stand on its own and writers must be their own masters.